Connect to share and comment

Special Reports

Labor violations are the norm at factories making high-tech gadgets.

Special report: Silicon Sweatshops

Despite strict "codes of conduct," labor rights violations are the norm at factories making the world's favorite high-tech gadgets.


Editor’s note: Silicon Sweatshops is a five-part investigation of the supply chains that produce many of the world’s most popular technology products, from Apple iPhones, to Nokia cell phones, Dell keyboards and more. The series examines the scope of the problem, including its effects on workers from the Philippines, Taiwan and China. It also looks at a novel factory program that may be a blueprint for solving this perennial industry problem.

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Hourly wages below a dollar. Firings with no notice. Indifferent bosses. Labor brokers that leech away months of a worker's hard-earned wages. A corporate shell game that leaves no one responsible.

Such conditions are widespread at the contract factories cranking out some of the most popular gadgets on the holiday season’s gift lists, according to labor rights activists and workers interviewed by GlobalPost.

Whether it's your cherished iPhone, Nokia cell phone or Dell keyboard, it was likely made and assembled in Asia by workers who have few rights, and often toil under sweatshop-like conditions, activists say.

[China's labor suicides: China worker suicides: a lost generation? and Foxconn suicides: Why higher pay won't work]

By the time a gadget reaches Apple's flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York City or any other U.S. retailer, it may have passed through the hands of a heavily indebted Filipina migrant worker on the graveyard shift in Taiwan, a Taiwanese "quality control" worker who'll soon be fired without warning, and a young Chinese worker clocking 80-hour weeks on a final assembly line, at less than a dollar an hour.

Recent years have seen a drumbeat of reports on such abuses. In 2006, in an audit following a British media report, Apple found that workers in a factory assembling iPods in China were working excessive overtime hours.

Earlier this year, the Pittsburgh-based National Labor Committee, a nonprofit human rights group, alleged that workers at a supplier to Microsoft, Dell and other brands in Dongguan, China, were clocking mandatory 81-hour weeks, on average. (Dell said in an email that a "corrective action plan" has since been developed after a joint audit of the firm with other customers. A Microsoft spokesperson said it was investigating the supplier firm and would make any "necessary improvements.")

Embarrassed companies have vowed to do better. They've drafted "codes of conduct" for their Asian suppliers, and promised more factory audits to catch abuses.

But here's the problem, say activists: While such codes may be great public relations, they're not working to fix the problem. Worse, the codes permit the big brands to pat themselves on the back, even as workers continue to be exploited in the shadowy world of Asian electronics supply chains.

"These codes of conduct and audits are new tools that every brand will have, and they feel so proud of themselves," said Jenny Chan, a labor rights activist formerly with Hong Kong labor rights group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM). "But the codes have limits. To see fundamental change, you have to get labor groups involved and gain the trust of workers. Otherwise it's just a cat-and-mouse game between auditors and suppliers."

The problem is compounded by a lack of transparency. Asian electronics supply chains are notoriously murky. Contractors shift orders across borders and between factories and subcontractors, and many major brands treat their supplier list as top-secret information.

That makes it difficult to pin down who's making what for whom and, therefore, difficult to fix blame when allegations of abuse come to light. When a factory catches flak from labor rights groups and negative media coverage, the big customers often cut orders or sever business ties — a surgical strategy that activists say fails to address underlying, systemic problems in the industry.

Apple’s response: “We take corrective actions when required”

Even by the industry's own assessment, its codes are routinely ignored.

In its latest annual report, the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) published results of joint audits in 2007 and 2008. (EEIC members employ some 3.4 million workers. Members include Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard.) It found rampant violations of its code of conduct on working hours and wages and benefits.

Or take Apple's own